Yes, Cliff Lee is scary—but two unlikely starters are also fueling the Rangers' postseason drive
Before the start of the season the Rangers made two especially bold gambles. They rolled the dice and gave a two-year, $5 million deal to Colby Lewis, a 30-year-old, barrel-chested righthander who ran up a 6.71 ERA while pitching in the big leagues from 2002 to '07, then spent the '08 and '09 seasons pitching for the Hiroshima Carp of Japan's Central League. It wasn't the only long-shot bet Texas made on its starting staff. The Rangers also moved C.J. Wilson, 29, a late-inning lefthanded specialist for the last four seasons, into the rotation, even though he hadn't started a game since '05. "Given their histories, there was a great deal of uncertainty with both," says Rangers president and owner Nolan Ryan. "But we felt that given their talent, they both had a chance to be dominant. And lo and behold, that's exactly what they've been."
The returnee from the Far East and the converted reliever have shown this postseason that Cliff Lee—who was his superb self in Game 3 of the ALCS against the Yankees on Monday, allowing just two hits and striking out 13 in eight innings in a 8--0 win—isn't the only shutdown starter the Rangers have. Last Friday, in Game 1, Wilson outpitched his New York counterpart, Cy Young candidate CC Sabathia, and dominated the best lineup in baseball, allowing three runs and six hits in seven-plus innings. (Wilson left with a 5--2 lead, but his performance was wasted when the Texas bullpen imploded and the Yankees rallied for a 6--5 win.) A day later the Rangers evened the series behind Lewis, who outdid 18-game winner Phil Hughes in a 7--2 Texas victory. Over 24 postseason innings through Sunday the two hurlers, both pitching in the playoffs for the first time, had allowed a combined five runs and struck out 22. "Cliff Lee is great," says Texas third baseman Michael Young, "but so are Colby and C.J. Those two don't get the recognition, but they've come up huge in every big spot for us."
Before his Game 1 start in Arlington, Wilson, who was 15--8 with a 3.35 ERA during the regular season, was asked—not for the first time—what influence Lee has had on him since the ace's arrival from Seattle in a July trade. "Before he got here, I was actually a righthanded-hitting second baseman," Wilson quipped. The lefthander was in fact a closer and eighth-inning setup man in recent seasons, but in spring training he walked into Ryan's office and told the pitching legend that he wanted to be a starter. "The writing was on the wall for me that I'd never be a closer here, and setup guys don't have long careers," says Wilson, who threw 6 1/3 shutout innings against the Rays in a win in Game 2 of the ALDS. "The one thing about being a closer that's helped me a lot is I'm able to say, Hey, I've done this before. I've shut down a team before with a one-run lead or with a tie game in the late innings."
Lewis, who was 12--13 with a 3.72 ERA in his first season back on U.S. soil, has been as cool as Wilson has under October's hot lights. "Everybody talks about postseason pressure and nervousness," says the righthander, a Rangers first-round pick in 1999. "But I kind of look at nervousness as taking my family to Japan. That's nervous—going to a foreign country, not knowing what to expect." Lewis, who struggled through three seasons with Texas and then one each with the Tigers and the A's before going to Japan in 2008, had offers from several major league clubs after two strong seasons with the Carp. But he chose to reunite with the organization that drafted him 10 years ago. "There was some unfinished business," Lewis says.
Last Saturday afternoon, Nolan Ryan stood up in the first row at Rangers Ballpark and joined the white-towel-waving faithful in cheering Lewis as he walked off the mound in the sixth inning, having handed the bullpen a five-run lead. His performance may not have exactly been Lee-esque—he allowed two runs and struck out six in 5 2/3 innings—but it was more than good enough. And while the Yankees worry about the possibility of facing Lee again in a Game 7, Wilson (the likely starter in Game 5 this Wednesday) and Lewis (Game 6) could ensure that the next time Lee gets the ball is the first game of the World Series. "It's been a long journey," Lewis said after his Game 2 win. "I really never imagined being here." No one did.
ROBERT BECK (WILSON)
NO LEEWAY Wilson (right) and Lewis kept the Yankees' bats quiet even before the Rangers' ace took the mound in Game 3.
GREG NELSON (LEWIS)
[See caption above]